Transformative Life: The Power of Imagination in Dhafer Youssef’s Whirling Birds Ceremony

The modern world presents opportunities to encounter and assimilate different cultures. Can this expansion of experience expand purpose and faith?

A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879
A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879

Musician Dhafer Youssef was born in the small fishing village of Teboulba, Tunisia, from a long line of muslim muezzins. It is the job of the muezzin to sing the adhan, or call to prayer, from the mosque whenever it is time for prayer. The community depends on the muezzin to keep accurate schedules that organize their day and help them practice faithfulness. Blessed with a powerful and expressive voice, Dhafer was sure to inherit both the beauty and the responsibility of the muezzin’s vocation. Life had other plans.

His grandfather introduced him to Quranic recitation, chanting of verses from Islam’s Holy Book, and he was schooled in the practice. Away from the discipline of school and grandfather, the six year old Dhafer sang along with the radio in his mother’s kitchen, experimenting with his voice in a different way. Although he still remembers his first chanting of the adhan with fondness, his talent and his interests would not be fulfilled as a muezzin. He attended a conservatory in Tunis briefly before leaving to study music in Vienna. In addition to singing, Dhafer plays the oud, a middle eastern lute and predecessor to the guitar, and composes music, both acoustic and electronic. He has released eight albums and performed all over the world.

Some traditionalists might say that he betrayed his ancestors by rejecting the role of muezzin, but that isn’t the only way to look at it. Yes, his music incorporates influences from Indian ragas, Norwegian music and jazz and is marketed to non-muslims. Despite this, a look at his subject matter and output, with titles such as Birds Requiem, Electric Sufi, Digital Prophecy and Divine Shadows, reveals that, far from abandoning his spirituality, Youssef has used his wanderings to deepen and expand his faith and share it with others, including those from different traditions. Delving deep into Sufi thought, with its desire to experience God intimately and directly, his vocation has become to call not only muslims to prayer and reflection, but all kinds of people.

Video via Dhafer Youssef on YouTube, please check out his wonderful website here.

This video from the album Birds Requiem is called Whirling Birds Ceremony. The title recalls the whirling dervishes, Sufi ascetics who practice a whirling dance in attempt to bring themselves closer to God. The atmospheric and ethereal music, which features Youssef on oud and vocals, Hüsnü Senlendirici on clarinet, Eivind Aarset on electric guitar and electronics, Kristjan Randalu on piano and Phil Donkin on double bass, is enhanced by splendid images from Maksoun Studio. We see and hear an inner world of fantastic and lovely transformations, much in contrast to the dark outer world revealed at the end of the video.  This inner world is constantly changing and moving, ranging through outer space, while the outer world is the human city with its fixed constructions and geography. Devotion and prostration lead to freedom and depth of motion as the soul whirls into the sky when the body bends low. Whirling Birds Ceremony reminds us that those who wish to contain and define other human beings can never contain and define our minds and spirits. More than that, it calls us to dream and let our inner being dance.

© Ajaiberwal with CCLicense
© Ajaiberwal with CCLicense

What a lovely and enduring vision!

4 thoughts on “Transformative Life: The Power of Imagination in Dhafer Youssef’s Whirling Birds Ceremony

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      I’m excited to have run across him on my explorations. Isn’t he inspiring?

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Videos of 2015 | synkroniciti

  2. katmcdaniel Reply

    Reblogged this on synkroniciti and commented:

    I am reblogging in keeping with our visions theme and in memory of the Sufis who were killed as they prayed at Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Pakistan this week. May light shine on their souls.

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